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Ottawa's mini-budget draws praise, criticism from business and builder groups

Failure to extend repayment deadline for COVID loans will hurt small business, say advocacy groups
(Forest Products Association of Canada photo)

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s Fall Economic Statement garnered a mixed bag of reviews by business and industry groups, offering praise for some measures but also criticism for not going far enough in addressing key concerns.

The government’s decision not to extend the repayment deadline for CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account) loans will hamper the post-pandemic recovery efforts of still struggling small businesses, according Ontario Chamber of Commerce President Rocco Rossi in a news release.

“Many industries are currently battling unpredictable government policies and the burden of red tape, hindering their ability to invest and plan confidently now and in the future.”

With the Fall Economic Statement adding $20.8 billion in spending during a period of high interest rates that didn’t sound to Rossi like the federal government was getting its fiscal house in order.

In echoing the Ontario Chamber, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) expressed disappointment not to extend a requested CEBA loan deadline from Jan. 18 2024 to Dec. 31, 2024. 

CFIB President Dan Kelly said two-thirds of small businesses don’t have the money to repay the loan and if they can’t pay in full by Jan. 18, their CEBA debt increases by as much as 50 per cent, creating the potential for a quarter million business failures.

“Sadly, Ottawa ignored the pleas of thousands of small business owners across Canada and didn’t address the crippling pandemic debt that’s weighing on small firms. Over two-thirds of small businesses still carry pandemic debt, at an average of $126,000,” said Kelly.

On the housing front, while the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) is pleased that Ottawa is spending billions to tackle the housing supply and affordability issue, the industry group said, this is “trillion-dollar problem” and a “Marshall Plan-style strategy” needs to be rolled out to address the shortfall.

“We are encouraged that housing is a main focus of the feds but there are still many impediments that were not addressed such as the enormous infrastructure funding gap faced by municipalities that impedes new home construction,” said RESCON President Richard Lyall.

The $16 billion in new loan funding and support for builders of rental and affordable housing projects, along with the mortgage charter to bring relief measures to struggling homeowners, are all commendable, the group said. But many construction impediments have not been addressed, such as reducing taxes when buying a home and the “unacceptably long approvals process” builders endure when starting a project.

The Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) CEO Tim Hudak remarked the “pro-housing, pro-supply” funding initiatives by the government shows Ottawa “is taking this issue seriously.”

Yet the construction industry needs more skilled workers. He applauds Ottawa’s efforts toward working with the provinces and territories to implement full interprovincial mobility for Canadian-born and immigrant construction workers. 

Hudak is “thrilled” to see the Canadian Mortgage Charter allowing homeowners more flexibility and choice when renewing their mortgages when many households are feeling a financial squeeze.

The Forest Products Association of Canada appreciated the government’s move to include forest biomass conversion technologies for heat and electricity generation in its Clean Technology and Clean Electricity Investment Tax Credits.

Association President Derek Nighbor remarked it’s a good start to grow the forestry bioeconomy in building a market for low-grade wood “in the face of worsening fire patterns.” Nighbor said his group is ready to work with government on its implementation.

“It's good news for forestry workers and communities because this will improve our sector’s international competitiveness position in the face of similar incentives in the United States and Europe. We absolutely needed this to be able to compete for global investment in the months and years ahead.”